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Senate anti-terror debate starts with turmoil

Bush threatens to veto the bill over airport screeners' rights.

March 01, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — White House veto threats and a fight over national standards for driver's licenses marked the opening Wednesday of a Senate debate over anti-terrorism legislation.

The Improving America's Security Act of 2007, which would follow a version passed by the House, would implement recommendations of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It includes measures to bolster emergency communications and international cooperation on anti-terrorism technology.

But it would also give the nation's 43,000 airport screeners collective bargaining rights. That provision -- strongly backed by labor's Democratic allies -- prompted President Bush to issue the veto threat and Republican senators to promise to sustain his veto.

Senators also set the stage for a second battle with the administration, introducing an amendment to delay implementation of a controversial law that sets new requirements for driver's licenses. The White House champions the 2005 Real ID Act, which will require every applicant to prove their citizenship or legal residency before renewing their license.

But state legislators, including some in California, are resisting the law, which is to take effect in May 2008 and could cost states billions of dollars to implement.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the bill's author, said the 257-page legislation would finish work begun in 2004, when Congress first implemented some of the Sept. 11 panel's recommendations. "The commission members came back and told us in 2005 there's still a lot to be done," he said.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) combined the bill with three others that address rail and aviation security, emergency communications and terrorism protections for public transportation.

The bill, supported by the Sept. 11 commission, would provide $3.3 billion in grants over five years to help create communications systems among local, regional, state and federal governments. The incompatibility of the systems was a central problem on Sept. 11, 2001, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said, recalling "people running into buildings when they should have been running out."

Stabenow and Lieberman noted that when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, the problem still existed, with National Guard members using hand signals and runners to convey messages. "Can you imagine? In the United States of America?" Stabenow said.

The legislation would also reverse some funding cuts by the administration, allocating $3.1 billion for fire departments, emergency services and police for training and equipment.

The bill also includes measures to protect privacy. It would strengthen a board that monitors whether anti-terrorism programs violate civil liberties. It would require federal agencies to report annually on how they use data-mining technology to search for criminal or terrorist activity. And it would create standards for intelligence sharing between federal, state, local and tribal governments.

Debate Wednesday was mostly low-key until lawmakers rose to comment on an amendment to delay implementation of the Real ID Act. The law requires states to issue forgery-proof driver's licenses embedded with personal data, sparking concerns about privacy and complaints that it is a backdoor way to create a national ID.

"I cannot tell you the angst and apprehension over the issue of Real ID," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

The National Conference of State Legislatures, working with the National Governors Assn. and the American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators, has estimated the law will cost states $11 billion over 10 years. Cost estimates for California range from $500 million to $700 million.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, introduced the Real ID amendment, which would postpone the law's implementation until May 2010 and require the input of technology experts and privacy advocates.

She criticized the Homeland Security Department for failing to issue its guidelines to help states prepare to enact the law.

"It's simply unfair to expect states to comply with such a complex and expensive mandate when the department has been so tardy in issuing the guidance the states need," Collins said.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said the law was crucial for national security, noting that Sept. 11 hijackers used fake driver's licenses. "Real ID is not about issuing a national ID card, it's not about a mega-database that will gather information on Americans or drivers, it's about creating a uniform framework to shut down a vulnerability," he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the Transportation Security Administration, went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to convey the administration's opposition to giving screeners bargaining rights.

"The screeners are like Marines in Iraq," he told reporters. "The Marines don't collectively bargain over whether they're going to wind up in Anbar province or Baghdad. TSA screeners are on the front lines of protecting this country."

Lieberman pointed out that the legislation does "not include the right to strike; the legislation gives special power to the administrator of the TSA to move those screeners around in a time of emergency."

He said that he regretted the veto threat and would fight for the bill.

"I must say I don't get it," Lieberman said. "This really isn't much, honestly. It's giving to the TSA screeners the same employee rights that most everybody in the federal government has."


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